Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Misty, water colored memories…(and a contest)

by Miriam

For someone who’s fanatical about fiction, I’ve always had a soft spot for biographies and memoir (of course, a good account of an interesting life has much in common with the best fiction). Losing oneself in the pages of a novel full of invented characters is a delicious way to spend an afternoon, but there is a particular kind of pleasure in reading about real people’s exploits and experiences and especially how they describe themselves and what they’ve gone through. I find that willingness to share one’s humanity and the courage it takes to air one’s laundry and leave it flapping in the breeze pretty irresistible.

I’ve been charmed by Laurence Olivier’s diffident, self-deprecating take on his prodigious talent and by John Bayley’s loving account of his relationship with the great Iris Murdoch. I’ve been blown away by Paul Monette’s gorgeous Becoming a Man and Elie Wiesel’s devastating Night. I’m desperate to read Keith Richards’ surprisingly well-reviewed Life and Antonia Fraser’s ode to her love affair with Harold Pinter. But, I’ve also got a night table buckling under the weight of memoirs by the likes of Mary Karr, Jeannette Walls and Anne Lamott.

Samuel Johnson, himself the subject of a great biography and the author of the wonderful Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, put it thusly, “I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful; for...every man has, in the mighty mass of the world, great numbers in the same condition with himself, to whom his mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients, would be of immediate and apparent use.” He went on for a while after that, but you get the idea. Everyone has a story to tell. Their own.

So, I’d like to propose a memoir contest. Give us a couple of sentences that tell us the gist of your memoir and we’ll put it to a vote and decide whose story has the most potential. (Please keep in mind that this is not a referendum on your life…just on your ability to craft a good pitch for it.) We’ll come up with prizes for first, second and third place entries and let you know what those are as soon as we’ve figured them out.

I look forward to reading.

Update: Thanks for all the good stuff, guys. Keep the entries coming until Monday, Nov. 8, at midnight. We'll announce the winners (and prizes) on my Wednesday blog post.


  1. Oh! This is very tough, but since I write fiction, I should be able to craft something from the truth, right? Here goes...

    Older than dirt, but with the soul of Peter Pan, I've seen the best and the worst of humanity, from the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall to the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City. In "Tales of a Cock-eyed Optimist," I share my views, philosophy, and stories from a life well lived.

  2. After a divorce that left her bankrupt and clinical depression that almost killed her, she though she'd lived life down to the nub before she was twenty-three. Still, when she met and married a wonderful man she had no idea what lay ahead. Through the roller coaster of watching her transgendered husband become her wife, a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder, and the thrill of learning to enjoy the little things, she discovered that sometimes what people overlook as insignificant is what matters the most.

  3. This is fun! Here's my attempt (as I normally write fiction):

    Though Tamara was born in 1969 in northern Wyoming, it might as well have been the old West of the 1800s. While not in school, she farms and ranches and spends summers without electricity and running water, and all the while her family and her uncle’s family feud. Amid fist-fights, guns waved, legal battles, gas tanks sugared, and dogs killed, she tries to figure out what it means to become a woman in a culture that privileges men and violence.

  4. This is actually the log line for my current WIP, only I've changed the names to the reflect my true life. :) The WIP is greatly fictionalized with a little truth sprinkled in!

    When they first meet, Lisa, two and Rocky, ten, they have an immediate, unexplainable bond. As they grow up, they discover they are destined to love each other their entire lives, despite the eight year age difference. When lack of communication and mistrust damages their foundation her senior year of high school, love appears to lose the battle; however, years later, after Lisa suffers a humiliating divorce, she ultimately discovers what Rocky has always known, and that is true love prevails and is always worth the wait.

  5. It never struck me as odd that my earliest memory was of my lying awake all night in my crib, staring into the dark. I remember a rectangular patch starting to get lighter as dawn came, until it turned yellow and revealed itself as the window shade being lit by the morning sun. I remember seeing the narrow wooden boards of the walls, and the way condensation appeared on the white enamel paint covering them.

  6. When I look into the eyes of my child it is amazing how I see my life flash before me. Who is this little being and who will he become? How did I get to be the mother of this tiny creature. Oh, but I know that well enough. Memories of yesterday fill my mind and stir up emotions inside me. I see myself as a child holding my mother's hand, a grandmother that will never see her grandson who sleeps in my arms. I wrestle with that knowledge and remember all of my dreams of yesterday. It hasn't been an easy journey, but every scrape and scratch had been worth it. Every lesson I learned, though hard made me who I am today, and I pray my story will give my son the strength to carry on the dream that lives in him.

  7. I'll play! Let's see....

    At nineteen I never thought a single phone call could change the course of my life, but it did. One abusive marriage, childbirth, and terrifying divorce later -- I discover who I really am, and that happiness isn't found, it's made.

  8. Losing your sight changes how you see the world: getting it back changes how you see yourself.

    Synopsis: A wife and mother fights to regain her eyesight while also battling family divides over faith, struggles at home, and her father's grave medical diagnosis.



    Everyone who loves you reacts differently when you go blind.

    No one reacts well.

    If you went two years without being able to see your own face in a mirror, would you recognize later the person you'd become?

    I knew I was in trouble when they started bringing in groups of medical students and residents and saying things like "You won't ever see another pair of eyes like these in your lifetime, pay attention."

    Some of these doctors said it as if I wasn't even in the room anymore. Just a pair of eyeballs floating in the air, kind of like Cheshire Cat when he fades in and out.

    Then they shine very bright lights at you for extended periods of time, unmoving, even as you fight to keep your lids open and involuntarily tears pool and spill over because somehow even in the dimming haze, the piercing beam still burns.

    You ask when they'll be finished, at times they don't answer. Some just kept talking to the residents without even pausing to pretend they'd heard my inquiry.

    "See, the light reflects all the way back. You can see the rods and cones lit up like the spokes on a wheel. Isn't that amazing?"

    At least, that's what they said until my lenses were so destroyed that they blocked everything from getting in. Then they said, "See how the lens creates a complete obstruction? It's impossible to visualize the retina anymore."

    Translation: They couldn't see in, and I couldn't see out.

  9. Yikes- sorry, I missed the 'just a few sentences' line the first time- see, still having sight issues after all this time. If it's too long, I apologize.


  10. The Price of Tea, Tales of an Errant Expat Family in China, is a memoir that follows the travails of Jennifer, a woman who thought she was fulfilling a life-long dream of escaping the American middle class ideal when her family moves to Shanghai, China. Dumped off in a quasi-local living situation where what’s up is down and what’s down is up, she is disheartened that her life-long dream was merely a rose-colored fantasy. Jennifer finds herself longing to return to the safe confines of her former suburban life that she couldn’t wait to abandon. The Price of Tea is one American’s sometimes humorous and sometimes painful take on the vast differences between East and West during arguably the most amazing Industrial Revolution in history.

  11. "Big" - A memoir about how I got fat and found myself by saying yes to handmade biscuits and no to juice fasts, acai berries, and gluten-free everything. A weight-inspired, obesity mythbusting journey of self-acceptance at any size.

  12. Going home is like visiting people who exist more in my imagination than in real life. But still, every year, I go back. Mostly in the summer, never during the holidays. I’ve learned that much.

  13. This is only for the fun of it, because I write fiction, but is real.

    "Love doesn't care for religion or race, as I didn't chose him for his tormented soul, it all was beyond desire. But even in a modern Europe, racism and religion made a young couple fight for something that should be a blessing, and not a curse, and loose a love of many to live one of their own."


  14. My completed 74,000-word memoir, 101 Uses for Day-Old Bread, unravels the mysterious bond that ties mothers and daughters together, and the similarities that tear them apart. After losing a mother I hardly knew to suicide almost eighteen years ago, I began the journey to know her and found myself along the way.

    For most daughters, hearing the words, “You’re just like your mother” would not be considered a death sentence, especially if that mother is beautiful, intelligent, and highly creative. But when that mother has also been labeled bi-polar, borderline-schizophrenic, and suicidal, those words will most likely cast a pall. Though we all have a choice whether or not to “be” our parents, sometimes the inevitable occurs, and you wake up one day, look into the mirror, and realize you are exactly like your mother. And because very few have the opportunity to Eat, Pray, Love their way to discovering who they really are, sometimes you have to stay exactly where you are, day after day, and try your best to overcome the curse of being your mother. It’s not always pretty, but it’s not all ugly either.

    Have you been left behind by your 26-inch waistline, your un-lined face, or your sanity? Do your children look at you like you were born on another planet? Do the tedious details of just living life leave you feeling like you are well past your “sell-by” date? Were you born into a family so twisted with family demons that you wonder why God singled you out for such punishment? If so, then this book is for you. Because even if you believe your shelf life is over, you will find that there are 101 Uses for Day-Old Bread.

  15. When I was eight, a neighbor gave us a stack of Japanese magazines to throw out. I pulled them out of the trash and pored over them for days, marveling at the photographs of children in kimono, women cooking, and policemen arranging flowers. It bothered me no end that I couldn't read a word. Some day, I told myself, I'd be able to understand Japanese, spoken and written.

    Decades later, after many mis-adventures and cringe-worthy mistakes, I've reached my goal. I've slogged my way through Japanese translations of Harry Potter, and Norwegian Wood in the original. I've gone through labor and attended PTA meetings with nothing but Japanese, and I've had occasion to use it in five different countries. Best of all, I've spoken it with Chinese, Brazilians, Cubans, Koreans, and Turks.

    If you've ever struggled your way through a foreign language and felt like an idiot half the time, this is the book for you. I may not be able to help you, but you'll definitely feel better about your mistakes.

  16. A college classmate – who leaves me weak-kneed and breathless when she merely tosses her dark bangs out of her eyes – heads to Alaska for a summer job on a fishing boat. This small-town Wyoming boy follows and ends up gutting salmon in a fish cannery to earn a plane ticket home. Six months later, she runs off to North Africa with the Peace Corps and I stay in Alaska, heart bruised, hoping she’ll return. This sets the pattern of our relationship: I pursue, she retreats. Two-and-a-half years later, she returns and we end up on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. We fall in love again during that near-death experience, and I struggle to keep our relationship – and myself – together as we spend a decade careening around the West and Alaska. For all we give each other, I’m blind to what she most needs: For me to let her go.

  17. Horrendous things can happen to a person as they grow through life and it is up to that person to decide how to handle it. I am not going to discredit the horrible lives that people have nor will I tell others how they handled it is incorrect. Instead, I will just let you know my situation and how I handled it. As a small child I experienced events, moments, and episodes in my life that would be considered deplorable. My mother was/is considered a paranoid schizophrenic and until I was removed from her at the age of eight I lived with her. We lived in multiple states as she passed through many men until eventually I ended up as a ward of the state. Her paranoid episodes and moments still come back in small twinges and memories when I let my guard down, but for the most part I do my best to forget and make sure that my children never face anything like my upbringing. Somehow, even when it was at its worst, I was always able to find the good in life and give my teddy-bear a hug for support. Remember, it will always get better.

  18. I happen to be working on a memoir now! (Not telling which one is me.)

    Three freshman braniacs walked into a sorority. The first dreamed of following in her mother’s footsteps as chapter president, if only she could live up to expectations and maintain a 4.0. The second wore flowered hats, played dumb to the guys and rarely mentioned that she spoke fluent Portuguese. The third soldiered on to the parties she hated, was rejected as she expected, so her sisters elected her Social Chair. Idealistic and unwise in the ways of the world, we embarked on a project to make our chapter popular, using all the intellectual resources at our disposal. Together with our strange, smart and wonderful sisters, we learned lessons in success and failure. As we left those cloistered years behind, we found ourselves returning to that early roller-coaster ride, facing the slings and arrows of the adult world with the one thing we learned in college, to be true to ourselves.

  19. People say I was born under a lucky star and I think it's true. As far back as I can remember, I've always said that I never wanted to get married or have children. I just want to be free to travel the world and travel I did to over sixty countries and living in eight. I met only good people during my travels; not evident for a young girl traveling alone in many parts of the world. Sometimes I slept in chateaux, other times out in the snow.

    I've met wonderful men through the years who fell in love and wanted to marry me, but I wasn't about to be tied down. Looking back on my life, I have so many wonderful memories of people and places where I danced, lived, drank, and made love, and the journey is far from over as I pack my bags once more.

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  21. According to family legend, I was hatched from a turtle egg on the banks of the Mississippi River, and my life only got more interesting. Peanut butter, Pepsi Cola, Monopoly, and escapades with a rumble of thirty-six cousins enlivened my formative years, as recounted in my episodic memoir Me, Myself, and I, which pulls readers in through the touch, the scent, the sounds, the feelings of growing up. Neither the wicked adoption agency nor my terror of clowns prevented me from soaking up the life lessons that gave me the confident, adventurous spirit I have today.
    --Suzan W

  22. If I tell people where I grew up and they say, “Rush Limbaugh’s from there!” I can pretty well hang my hat on us not becoming best friends. While I disagree to my core with Rush’s politics, it’s more the pleasure he seems to take in perpetuating all manner of hate-talk, and the blare of his bellowing, that sinks my heart to my gut. When Rush talks, I hear my family – people I love but do not understand, people who still use the “n” word in casual conversation, people who can go months or years “not speaking” to this one or that – and it makes me dread going home.

    Why does this story matter? Missouri is a bellwether state. Its people’s views on key issues – like diversity, stem-cell research, and gay marriage – mirror the American mainstream. Missouri has accurately chosen the President of the United States for more than 100 years, with two notable exceptions: they voted for neighboring Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson over Eisenhower in 1956; and they did not choose Barack Obama.

    My memoir, Missouri White Girl, is about working through the dread I feel when going home and mending fences. On one level, it is the story of my family’s struggle to reconcile our grievances and rebuild relationships in the seven years following my mother’s death. More broadly, it is a historical account of my hometown, particularly its struggles with racial diversity and how these tensions shaped my family.

  23. Nine months pregnant with my fourth child, preparing for another midwife-attended home birth, I thought I knew what to expect when I was expecting—until the morning we woke to find thick brown smoke clogging the Southern California skies. I knew pregnancy could involve complications, sure, but evacuating ahead of a wildfire? There’s no chapter for that in the birth books.

    By the time the kids were buckled into the minivan, I had a basket of sterile birth supplies, a tank full of gas, and early labor contractions.

    This was not in my birth plan.

  24. A naïve young girl falls for a criminal and becomes his victim in the process. She eventually seeks justice for him and recovery for herself (through telling the story and hoping other naive girls learn from it).

  25. Nan Goheen9/11/10 2:27 AM

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  26. Nan Goheen9/11/10 2:28 AM

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  27. Nan Goheen9/11/10 2:30 AM

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  28. Nan Goheen9/11/10 2:31 AM

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  29. Nan Goheen9/11/10 2:34 AM

    Given my age and capacity to screw up while being brutally honest with myself my challenge, unlike the post "My life would make a boring memoir" (Nov) is how to choose, which story to share. Only recently did I see this contest; working madly I narrowed it down to 2.

    Growing up in Western Kentucky I saw the guidance counselor as a travel agent and made my first reservations for New Orleans. At Tulane my roommate was a socially and physically awkward, closet Lesbian, devoted to her benefactor, a widowed and childless billionaire Aunt whose crowning achievement was marrying and surviving 3 Texas oil millionaires.

    This is a love story with unsolved mysteries and a closet heir to a Fortune 500 company who kept his wealth a secret (and his other girlfriend who knew about his secret) to assure love for him not his money. Our relationship was exciting, full of adventure and passion yet I couldn't help feeling he was hiding something so when he popped the question not only was it unexpected, I had just been accepted to graduate school with full ride grant and assistantship.

    “My heart says yes, but I need to sleep on it,” not what he wanted to hear but agreed if I promised to keep the proposal a secret. What happened next? With my roommate secretly in love with, me did she sabotage our connecting? Did his other girlfriend move in? Or did I screw up/do the right thing?

    30 Years later after living a full life and an entirely different Memoir:

    Ten years ago my life was an embarrassment of riches, having achieved more than I'd dreamed possible. I laughed a lot, knew enough to be grateful. .

    I was happily married and having grown up blanketed by financial security, worked since 15, had 2 advanced degrees and managed money carefully which is why it took 7 years to go down after plunging into a what is becoming a too familiar story: The American dream turned nightmare, hit by unexpected loss, a medical crisis or job loss tosses financial security, dignity and hope into the shredder.

    My story began with my husband's hit and run but it's the story of every man and woman, in this economy, caught in catastrophic loss. Being on the cutting edge when these losses were new, we were caught unaware, operating under the assumption that insurance companies and banks could be counted on.

    Whatever smugness I enjoyed was ravished by loss and profound poverty, physical hunger, stomach clutching fear over paying rent, without insurance forgoing medical care causing irreversible damage.

    After we have taken a journey that can only be completed through change or survived what is experienced as a disaster, we want to share our story, assure others, to light the way. When we live through any number of shared experiences, a car crash, a blizzard, tornado, or physical attack, fewer words are required.

    But when the journey through darkness is brought to us through the unfamiliar, we have to chart our own course and cannot rely upon shared knowledge and experience.

    What lies within our collective fascination with another's loss, with other's pain? I chose to believe that is how we remind ourselves to be thankful. It is a search for the depth and breadth of our capacity to be alive, to reach into the very depths of hell and find ourselves blinded by the Light; to dig our way to China, breath the earth and not drown in dirt.

  30. Nan Goheen9/11/10 2:41 AM

    Please forgive the repeated posts. I spent hours trying to post and having them rejected so kept repeating the process. This is embarrassing to say the least. They all appeared at the same time.

  31. Nan Goheen9/11/10 7:47 PM

    Any suggestions as to how to remove a post. I notice some postings say removed by author. I am a computer challenged and the Google error messages I received in response to my post's stated URL to long, rejected. So I tried again, using a slightly different strategy. If anyone knows how to remove the duplicates please let me know. Yesterday was my first attempt to post here.

    Again, I am sorry for overloading the entry and any inconvenience or frustrations it may have caused.

  32. Nan, rather than giving "a couple of sentences.... and the gist of your memoir" you gave us the whole kit and kaboodle, but that said, I will say, at least it's interesting!

  33. Nan, in order to be able to delete it, I think you have to be logged in under Google or one of those (under "Comment as" below the "Post a Comment" box) - not simply name and URL. Because you (probably) used the choice name and URL, maybe Lauren (DGLM) is the only one who can delete extra ones. I've had this happen to me too - not a problem!

  34. All better, I think. No worries, Nan! Technical difficulties happen to the best of us.


  35. Dear Lauren, Tamara and Anonymous,

    Thanks for reaching out to help me wipe the red off my face.

    My post is a perfect example of what not to do. In my haste to participate at the last minute, I submitted a piece way too long and inclusive. The defined requirements of any submission are important and I know better than to ignore them. Or I should.

    Inherent in the challenges of memoir is mercilessly paring back until only a manageable story remains. And revealing the main character's (me)character flaws. Whatever works to give story precedence...

    Thanks again for everyone's assistance. And yes you are correct I used the name and URL option because I didn't know what to do with the others. I am logged in under Google I think but I am net impaired or delayed. :}

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